• Sofiya Pasternack

Your TOP FIVE Burning Author Questions Answered

I love FAQs!


I like to think of myself as an approachable person. And I guess I must be, because I get asked a lot of questions about writing very often! I love answering them, and I noticed that I get a cluster of the same questions over and over again from newer authors.

FULL Writing Advice Playlist

So I thought it would be helpful to answer those common questions here, just in case any of you have these same burning questions smoking up your brain!


These are the top 5 questions asked!

How do you stay motivated to write?

How do you get past writer’s block?

How do you come up with book plots/ideas?

How do you find beta readers/CPs/critique groups?

How do you find an agent?

How Do You Stay Motivated to Write?

I don’t. Because

MOTIVATION ISN’T REAL

Okay, it’s real. Kinda. But it’s not something I rely on, because if I relied on motivation to get stuff done, I’d… never get anything done. The key to motivation is to learn how to accomplish things without it.


I wrote a whole blog post about this, so go check that out to find out my in-depth answer to this!

How Do You Get Past Writer’s Block?

Ugh writer's block is the worst!

There are a lot of articles out there that say something like "writer's block is fake!" and then immediately launch into 10 ways to fix it. Ten ways to fix your imaginary problem. We have a word for that in psychology, and that word is

I think first we need to define what writer's block even is.

Okay, that's what Oxford says, and they probably know something about something, right? But I'm super into diagnostics, and I like to have lists of symptoms to choose from, like the DSM-5. So what would my DSM-5 entry for writer's block look like? I propose the following:


WRITER'S BLOCK

Being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing for at least 3 consecutive days with at least 4 of the following symptoms that cause clinically significant impairment in creative functioning; one of these criteria must be #1:

  1. Inability to put words on the page

  2. Lack of interest in current plot or literary devices, such as symbolism or metaphors

  3. Use of distraction methods such as cleaning the refrigerator or aerating the lawn

  4. Animosity at current characters; a dislike of an imaginary person

  5. A sensation of "delicious diligent indolence" (Keats, 1819)

  6. The certainty that one's writing is bad, boring, stupid, or all of the above, even in the absence of any kind of confirmation that this is the case

  7. Creative exhaustion; a feeling that ideas have "dried up"

Writer's Block should not confused with Blank Page Anxiety (anxiety specifically incited by the sight of a blank page) or Unworkable Plot Disorder (the author's realization that their plot isn't workable for some reason, but the inability or unwillingness to change it), although there is significant comorbidity between these three diagnoses.


As you can see, writer's block is indeed a real thing, so next time someone says it isn't, you can trot out this list and say, "A REAL PSYCHOLOGY PROFESSIONAL PERSON MADE THIS UP SO THERE."


Something that aggravates me to no end are the people who, when speaking of things like depression (Major Depressive Disorder) and anxiety (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), say things like, "Those aren't even real. You just need to eat vegetables and go outside and you'll be cured."


I want to push these people off a curb. They won't get hurt, but they'll have a little moment of "OHNOI'MFALLING" and then when they stagger to their feet, I'll point at them and say, "Quit being a dismissive shitweasel."


But here's the thing: eating vegetables and going outside will help depression and anxiety. Not cure them. But help. Part of my treatment of patients with MDD and GAD is to nag them to make better lifestyle choices: exercise, diet, social connection, and cutting down on things like sugar, alcohol, tobacco, and other substances.


The thing about depression is that it very, very often involves anhedonia, or the complete loss of interest in anything, even the things you used to love to do. So when I say, "hey you should go for a walk," someone with MDD is like "I can't even do things I love to do, why would I go for a walk?"


Because... it helps. That's why.


Similarly, the treatments for writer's block is something that seems impossible while you're in the throes of it, but will absolutely help: just write.


And you, the writer who is paralyzed by their writer's block, says, "I can't even drum up excitement for my cool story about witch gremlins, why would I write down words I know are going to be terrible and bad and no good?"


Because... it helps. That's why.


Writing--any kind of creative endeavor, really--is an emotionally taxing process. And what are some surefire ways to refill your emotional tank? Go for a walk. Eat some vegetables. Talk to a writing friend. Dial back your caffeine intake. Do some mindfulness.


Take care of your brain, and your brain will take care of you.

How Do You Come Up With Book Plots/Ideas?

There's an exercise I learned about oh-so-many years ago called The Paperclip Test.

Not this paperclip.

In 2011, some guy came up with a way to measure someone's metacognition, or their ability to think about thinking. On a neuro level, metacognition is wild. Thinking... about thinking. That takes some serious creative chops. And any kind of creativity requires a higher level of brain functioning. That's why scientists get so excited when nonhuman animals use tools: they're being creative, and creativity (the ability to imagine something that doesn't exist) is a huge cognitive step forward.

As humans, we take creativity for granted, because all of us do it. Some people are more creative than others, but all humans are capable of creativity in some way. Have you ever gotten into an imaginary argument with that coworker who always microwaves fish in the break room, wherein you totally own them and everyone in the office thinks you're awesome now? That's being creative, because that event isn't happening. It might never happen. But you have created it inside your head. And not to get too philosophical and pretentious, but if you've created it even on a neural level, doesn't it... kind of exist now?


You have created something out of nothing .


B o n k e r s.


Metacognition and creativity are linked with two opposing cognitive things: divergent thinking and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is sorta what it sounds like: the ability for a person to think in many lines of thought, and acknowledge that there is more than one way to come to a solution--and maybe that there's even more than one solution. Convergent thinking is the opposite: the ability for a person to think in ways that fall along conventional and "correct" ideas and solutions (Runco and Acar, 2012).


Right! Now that you know what divergent thinking is, let's talk about the Paperclip Test of Divergent Thinking.


Go get three things right now: a paperclip, a pen/pencil, and some paper. I'll wait.


Okay, got them? Cool. Now write down as many uses for that paperclip as you can. What kinds of things can be done with that paperclip? Write down absolutely all of them that you can think of.


How many things did you write down? If your list is between 15 and 20 items, congratulations, you are a regular adult human person in probably a Western country (all the research I've seen on this was done largely in the UK and USA).


But if you're really good at metacognition and creativity and divergent thinking and all that... you could have gotten as many as 200 items.


What the WHAT??


Divergent thinkers go through the standard uses for paperclips, like uhhhh clipping paper together. Restarting certain electronic devices. You can pull hair back with them. Use them to temporarily fix torn clothing. Make them into jewelry. Go fishing with one.


But then they go further. What if the paperclip was a giant paperclip? Then you could use it as a wall around your house. You could use it as a hook to get stuff off your roof. You could straighten it into a javelin, or curl it into a hula hoop, or even make it into a horse and pretend to ride it around.


You're squinting at these words right now, and your brain is doing a record scratch. Like, "Okay, yeah, but you can't just magically turn a regular paperclip into a giant paperclip. That's not how reality works."


Check out this TEDx by a researcher about divergent thinking and creativity. It's 13:37 minutes long, and 13:37 minutes you're going to love!

If you don't want to watch the whole video, skip to 7:00.


About 1,600 American children were given a test to measure genius, and 98% of these kids measured as geniuses. Five years later, the same kids were tested, and only 30% tested as geniuses. Five years later, the same kids were tested again, and now 12% of them were geniuses. Only 2% of adults test as geniuses.


Chances are, you, the person reading this right now, are not in that 2% of geniuses.


But... you can be!


Go to 10:33 in the video and pause it.


This is the way in which those 98% of genius kids turned into only 2% of genius adults. We smash down our own creativity with stupid, pesky reality!


But what is reality even? Is reality real, or is it what we've been told is real?


Can you turn a regular paperclip into a giant paperclip and then use that giant paperclip as a garden tool?


Can you fit eight pistons in a compact engine?


I come up with plots and ideas by letting myself be divergent, and engaging with weird and wacky ideas. I have a video about my ten favorite methods of getting myself into a divergent thinking space. It's one of my very first videos I made and the audio is terrible and I'm heckin awkward, but the info contained therein is still great!


The key, I think, is to let yourself imagine freely and banish any kind of judgement of whether your ideas are good or bad or useable or marketable or interesting or tired or--anything. Just come up with them. Attach rockets to that paperclip and ride it to Jupiter. And if someone says that's impossible and can't exist? Well, you've imagined it, haven't you? You've created something from nothing. It already exists.


If you want a PDF of these ideas, check out this blog post!

How Do You Find Beta Readers/CPs/Critique Groups?


This is a hard one for me, because I'm pretty bad at doing it. The broad, unhelpful answer is "Just talk to a lot of other writers and be friendly and you'll find your writing home."


But yeah, unhelpful. What are some actionable steps you can cross off a list?


An Actionable List

  1. Join a writing group

  2. Get some critique partners

  3. Find trustworthy beta readers

Step 1

Well, I write children's literature, and I'm a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). This is a national organization with chapters in most states, and a lot of those chapters hold local writing groups for members. You can find groups of other YA, MG, or PB writers who can give you feedback that Adult authors (no offense to them) often just can't. When an Adult author tells you your MG book is juvenile, you're like, "Yes. You are correct. Thank you." But it's not really helpful feedback, because that Adult author might think the expected level of juvenile-ness is too much, whereas it's actually appropriate for the genre (this also happens with expected tropes of genres, like romance and fantasy, when non-romance or non-fantasy readers give feedback on those genres). When another MG writer says, "Your MG was a little too juvenile for MG," that carries a little more weight, because they know the genre expectations better.


There are also state writing organizations you can tap into. In Utah, where I live, there's the League of Utah Writers (LUW), with many chapters all over the state. Many of these groups are general all-genre groups, but some are specifically for poetry, genre fiction, kidlit, LDS fiction, and so on. You can come into these groups for general monthly (or weekly, or biweekly, etc) writing feedback, for camaraderie, and for writerly shenanigans.


If there's a college or university near you that has any kind of creative writing program, they may also have a writing group that's open to the public.


Public libraries sometimes have writing groups (I used to speak at one that was specifically for teens!).


Or you can even try to find one on MeetUp[dot]com or Scribophile[dot]com!


Steps 2 and 3

Let's take a pause and define what a critique partner (CP) is, and how it differs from a beta reader.


BUT FIRST we have to define what "beta" means, and how it relates to "alpha."


So many definitions!!


In wolf hierarchy, alpha and beta is a concept that is incorrect, and that only the uneducated believe (so read that study and educate yourself).

In software, alpha and beta releases divide a piece of software's developmental release into two differing stages. An alpha release comes first (usually?) and is when the software is still introducing new features. A beta release comes later and no longer includes new features, but polishes the features that are already there.


A CP is an alpha reader. They're usually another writer who is at a similar stage in their writing process as you are, and they help you develop new features in your story. These are big, deep changes. This is a new subplot, deleting or combining characters, changing your book's entire theme. The big stuff! This is why CPs are usually writers themselves. They can give serious feedback. Big feedback. Deep feedback. Alpha feedback. CP feedback is often reciprocal, too. You read their work as they're reading yours, and you trade feedback back and forth. Assume, unless otherwise made explicit, that a request for a CP includes a manuscript trade.


A beta reader can be writer but isn't necessarily, or at least not a writer who wants to do deep developmental critiques right now. The beta reader is for polishing those features that you worked on with your alpha reader. If the alpha reader helped you add a new love interest, the beta reader will help polish up the relationship as it develops between the MC and the love interest. Beta feedback isn't always as deep as alpha feedback, but it doesn't need to be. You've done the backbreaking labor of alpha development of your story, and the beta reader is taking that story for a spin to see if there are any bugs that need to be smoothed out. If a beta reader's feed back is, "I like the love interest," that's good beta feedback. They didn't pick up bugs or rough parts. They liked a thing they were supposed to like. Hooray!


So how do you find a CP and/or beta reader?


In that writing group you joined, silly! SCBWI, your local state or city writing group, the writing group at your school or local library, or even online. Workshop in groups, and if someone there gives you great feedback and seems to enjoy your story, approach them one-on-one and ask if they'd like to be your CP.


Or if you're having trouble finding someone in your writing group, the website writeoncon.org organizes a CP match in a database that you can access to search for other people who are also looking for CPs.

How Do You Find An Agent?


Oooohhhhhhh this question is a blog post all by itself, but I'll try to answer it here in a succinct way (spoiler alert, I am not succinct so buckle up).


How do you find an agent? Any way that works.


My agent found me through Pitch Wars, but she also has plenty of clients she signed after they queried her inbox.


I have writer friends who queried for years before they got an agent. I have friends whose first queried agent signed them. I have friends who broke up with their agent and had to find a new one, or who are still looking for a new one. I have friends who published a book with no agent at all, either through a publisher or self-pubbed.


The first step is to write an amazing book.


You have one of those? Cool! Go workshop it. A lot. Revise it until you're sick of looking at it.


You did that? Cool! Now go find books that would comp well to yours and look in the acknowledgements for the agent's name. It'll be there somewhere. Make a list of those agents, and look them up on their agency website or on social media. A lot of agents hang out on some social media platform, and you can find out a lot about them there.


What kind of things are those agents looking for? Do any of those things line up well with the book you wrote?


How does the agent act on social media? Are they cool? Are they standoffish? Do you like them? Would you be their friend?


ManuscriptWishList.com has a great page all about searching the #MSWL hashtag on Twitter, as well as how to navigate their own database of agents.

QueryTracker.net can help you search for agents, and also keep track of who you've sent queries to, and how long it usually takes them to get back with authors.

"This is a lot of researching stuff, Sofi," you say. "I just want to send my book to the best agents! How do I find those?"


Come with me on a fantastical journey for a moment. To a hospital. Um, a fantastical hospital. The doctors are all mythical beasts or something.

Okay. You are a person and you have broken your arm, and you come into the hospital and you go to the front desk and you say, "Hello. I have broken my arm."


And the nurse, who is an elf because this is a fantastical hospital, says, "Oh dear, I'll send you to Dr. Smith, the orthopedic surgeon, who can help fix your arm."


And you say, "Actually, I'd like to see Dr. Jones."


To which the nurse says, "Dr. Jones is a gynecologist."


And you say, "Yes I know, but my friend sees Dr. Jones and she says he's a great doctor, so I'd like to see him for my broken arm, please."


And the nurse says, "Um. Okay." And she sends your chart to Dr. Jones, and a minute later gets a phone call, and she looks at you and says, "Thank you for waiting. Dr. Jones does not want to see you."


And you say, "Ugh, fine. I'll see an orthopedic surgeon. But I want to see Dr. MacLeod."


The nurse says, "Dr. MacLeod isn't taking new patients at this time."


You say, "But I read on Twitter that Dr. MacLeod is really good."


She says, "Yes! She is! But she's full up on patients right now, and she's not taking on any new patients, so you'll have to wait a very long time before she's got an opening, and your arm will still be broken and you will be in a lot of pain."


You say, "Send her my chart anyway."


And the nurse is nice so she sends your chart, then gets another phone call, and she looks at you and says, "Dr. MacLeod does not want to see you, because she has no time for a new patient. But she thinks your arm being broken sounds interesting."


Exasperated, you yell, "Well, I need someone to fix my arm!"


And the nurse says, "Yes! How about Dr. Smith?"


"Fine," you say, and she sends your chart to Dr. Smith, who accepts you as a new patient and fixes your arm and is also an orc because this is still a fantastical hospital.


Okay, back to the real world, where the only fantastical creatures in a hospital are the night shift nurses, and there is no such thing as "the best agents." There is a best agent for you, because every writer is different and needs different things.


Some agents are really editorial, and others want a more polished manuscript out of the gate.

Some agents are one-book agents, and others want to represent an author for everything.

Some agents are very specialized and only represent a single age group or genre, and others will take anything.

Some agents have a single client, and some agents have dozens.

Some agents will communicate via email only, and others have their own Discord servers.


And all of those agents are valid!


My own agent is pretty editorial, has a Discord server, and puts up with my ridiculous shenanigans when I send her new manuscripts (I write query letters every time and they're mostly unacceptably bad). But I have friends whose agents are the complete opposite. Their agent is a great agent, but they would be a horrible fit for me, because I need a more relaxed and personal relationship with my coworkers.


And that's what an agent is! Your coworker!


That hospital analogy is one of my favorites to use while I'm talking to newer writers about agents. An agent is like a doctor in that they work for you. You find them. You pay them. But... they can turn you down if they don't think they can do anything for you. A gynecologist would turn down a patient with a broken arm, because what's the gynecologist going to do for that patient?? They don't have the skills (or the desire!) to perform orthopedic surgery, and if they tried, it would likely result in disaster (or at the very least, a wonky arm).


In the same vein, agents who don't represent middle grade are going to outright reject a middle grade manuscript, even if that manuscript is really, really good!


You know how you have to query agents? Well, they have to do the same thing to editors.


So all that anxiety and apprehension you feel about your queries?

How the ding of an email can send you flying through the ceiling?

How seeing other authors celebrating their own agents can make you shrivel up with envy?

How silence or rejections can make you question the very core of your creative heart?


All of that happens to agents, too, and even worse, because they're probably doing that with several of their authors at once. And when agents pitch to editors, they really get behind the book. They talk up the story. They talk up the author. They work hard to sell it.


Which means they have to sign projects that they truly, deeply love, or that they know is going to be sellable.


An agent can turn down a story that is great, simply because they don't know how to sell it. It's not their area of expertise, or it needs revisions that the agent doesn't know how to help them with, or that agent doesn't personally connect in a way that would allow them to sell the heck out of it to editors.


But the manuscript? The story? It's still awesome.


It's just not awesome for that agent.


So that's why researching agents is so important. That's why when you look into how to write a query, a lot of places will recommend that you include a "I think you'll like this book because..." sentence, because it encourages you to know that. So ask yourself, as you assemble your list of agents, why would this agent feel passionate about this manuscript? What about it would worm its way into their mind and not let them forget about it?


My agent's MSWL page has this on it:

Most of the agent listings on MSWL have something like this. So if you've written the next Kushiel's Dart, mention that in your query. "I think you'd love my book because you list on MSWL that you want the next Kushiel's Dart, and my book could be comped as Kushiel's Dart meets GBBO."


So when you're out there querying, don't think of it as you groveling and pushing your manuscript at agents sitting on golden thrones, pleading with them to consider your meager offering.


Think of it as you shopping for a doctor who has the knowledge and skill to fix your broken arm, or treat your psoriasis, or help with your anxiety disorder.


And good luck! I hope you find the perfect fit for you and your story.

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meet sofiya!

Sofiya Pasternack is a mental health professional, the highly-distractible author of Jewish MG and YA fantasy, and prone to oversharing gross medical stories.

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